Australians have long celebrated mateship as something unique to our society, although it is never clear what precisely is being celebrated. When John Howard tried to enshrine mateship in his proposed preamble to the constitution, we can presume he was not enshrining the mateship found on union picket lines or on the factory floor. He was probably thinking more of the mateship that was in evidence in the prisoner of war camps in Thailand, and which reportedly helped Australian prisoners to cope with the ordeal better than their British counterparts. Or the mateship that has been seen in bushfire-devastated Canberra this week.
At its best, mateship is about the sustaining comradeship that helps people through difficult times. Or that sees people risking their lives in a hopeless attempt to rescue a friend. It happened at Gallipoli; it happened after the Bali bombing; it is happening in the national capital; and it happens practically every week around Australia, although such concern for the welfare of others is not particularly Australian. Rather, it's what makes us human. Nevertheless, the notion of mateship retains a powerful hold on our sense of national identity.
At its worst, mateship is about blindly sticking by your mates regardless of what they have done, or what they are proposing to do. And it was to this sense of mateship that American Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was appealing when, during his recent visit to Australia, he presumed that Washington could count on our troops going forward with the Americans into Iraq. Australians stand by their mates, said Armitage, and we Americans will stand by our Australian mates as we have so many times in the past.
Of course, the Americans hardly stood by Australians in World War II. They waited until they were attacked at Pearl Harbor, when the war against Germany had been going for more than two years. And then it was made clear by General Douglas MacArthur that American forces were coming to Australia only because of its usefulness as a base from which to attack the Japanese, rather than to defend it for its own sake.
Later, Australia was left hanging when it sought American assistance to prevent the Indonesian takeover of West Irian and more recently when it sought American military assistance on the ground in East Timor.
Each time, the US made a careful calculation and concluded that its national interest lay more in staying on the sidelines in the war against Hitler and on good terms with Indonesia, rather than sticking by Australia.
Mateship did not figure in the American calculations. And neither should we expect it to do so. Nations are not akin to mates, and international relations are not conducted in such terms. Yet Armitage clearly considered that an appeal to mateship would help to ensure Australians stayed aboard the US military juggernaut as it trundles on towards the oilfields of Iraq. Although it is not clear whether he was pitching his simplistic appeal to Howard, or to Australians generally.
Sometimes, though, a mate should refuse to go into battle, and not only for the sake of protecting its own interests. Sometimes, a great power needs lesser powers to restrain it from making a costly mistake.
In 1941, Australian prime minister Robert Menzies should have stood up to his British counterpart, Winston Churchill, and refused to allow Australian troops to be diverted to Greece in a hopeless attempt to prevent the expected German invasion. That mad exercise cost thousands of Australian and other Allied lives, and nearly cost Britain its hold on the Mediterranean. Indeed, the military setback it caused probably lengthened the war by a year and led to the loss of millions more lives.
In his second incarnation as prime minister, Menzies supported the British escapade over Suez in 1956, which caused Britain to be humiliated and effectively signalled the end of its pretensions to great power status. Strong and timely words by Menzies to British prime minister Anthony Eden might have averted that debacle.
Menzies later encouraged the Americans into Vietnam, while Britain and all other European countries sensibly held back. Had Australia refused to lend its flag and its token forces to that adventure, it might have helped to restrain the Americans from sliding into that bloody abyss. But Menzies stayed mute.
The Australian people have not been privy to the discussions between Howard and the Americans concerning an Australian contribution to a US-led invasion of Iraq. However, it is clear from his language that Howard is ready to send our forces off as soon as he gets the call. That would be a shame.
Australia is not an important nation in world affairs. But there have been times when we have had the opportunity to exercise influence out of all proportion to our size, whether for good or ill. This is another one of those times when we can serve our own interests, as well as those of our great-power protector, by counselling caution rather than urging Washington on to war.
That's what real mates should be for.
The Age, 22 January 2003